Saturday, April 28, 2012

A Place About Mercy

My first exposure to the Magdalene program came during my first year of graduate school.  One of my professors assigned a project for which each student had to observe a local service organization and conduct an evaluation using a particular theoretical model. I waded through hundreds of websites for local non-profit organizations, but none seemed as compelling as Magdalene and Thistle Farms. I imagined myself conducting my research while being surrounded by strong and purposeful women, immersed in a lovely world of lavender fragrance and handicrafts.  I called the number for the Magdalene offices and was greeted with a rough voice that said:

 “You mean you wanna be an intern?”

“No…not exactly. I’m doing a project for class, and…”

“We don’t really do that.” Click.

I ended up doing my class project about an adult literacy program, and soon started working with professors who conducted research in places that were far more glamorous than Nashville (at least in my mind).  I spent a summer in Ecuador and one in Argentina. I traveled to Kenya and Alaska.  I learned about research ethics and socialized medicine from Costa Rican physicians and scientists. Though I’m not sure why, four years after my initial phone call, I heard that Magdalene needed an intern coordinator, and jumped at the chance. At the end of the summer of 2007, and my first “class” of interns, I approached members of the community about writing my graduate school dissertation about Magdalene.  The response was overwhelmingly positive and welcoming - something I have come to know as typical of Magdalene. Over the next two years, I continued to volunteer at Magdalene as the intern coordinator, and became a regular volunteer at Thistle Farms.

For my formal dissertation research, I conducted 29 interviews with community residents, former residents, program graduates, staff, and volunteers. I also conducted two group interviews that involved approximately ten women who were either living at Magdalene and/or working at Thistle Farms. Most importantly, however, I learned the community of Magdalene by sitting in meditation circles, labeling candles, and sweeping the floor.

I completed my dissertation and my graduate degree in June of 2009, and then spent a year at The Center for Spirituality, Theology & Health at Duke University Medical Center. During that year, I was graciously given the space and time to turn my dissertation into a book manuscript. That manuscript was published this year (this month! to be exact) as Magdalene House: A Place About Mercy. It is one of my proudest achievements and most humbling experiences. 

Magdalene is a place of abundance and I never stopped being surprised and overwhelmed by the willingness of community members to share their lives with me – people told me their stories, listened to mine, cheered for me when I needed encouragement and corrected me when I needed redirection. I was reminded everyday of the unrelenting power of addiction and the even more tenacious power of love, relationship and determination. I have lost sleep over many things during the course of writing this book – deadlines, writing dilemmas, and the shear volume of work. But perhaps nothing kept me up as much as the tremendous responsibility to share the stories that were shared with me in a manner that was true, dignified, and reflected the sacred space that is created when people share their lives with one another. It goes without saying that no one can tell “the story of Magdalene” better than Becca, Regina, or any number of Magdalene residents, graduates, staff, and long-time volunteers. Still, I hope that this book will be one more voice in the choir, one more effort to spread the story of Magdalene House, a place about mercy.

By Sarah VanHooser Suiter 

Sarah (right) joined by Tracy B., Magdalene Graduate, and the illustrator of the thistle on the cover of Sarah's book. 

Join Sarah and some of the women of the Magdalene program for a book event on Saturday, May 5th and 3pm at the Barnes & Noble Vanderbilt.  Details can be found HERE.

1 comment:

  1. Congratulations on the completion of your book. It sounds like a wonderful work.